1921 was not a banner year for Broadway. Few people would be able to name one hit musical that came out of that year--but then again, we'd be hard-pressed to really call the Broadway shows of 1921 "musicals." Most shows on the stem were more like revues than the book musicals that would dominate Broadway in another 20 years, serving as a venue for the hit songwriters of the day to show off their talents.
But, ah, what talents we had! George and Ira Gershwin were ascending to the top, as were Irving Berlin Jerome Kern. And those revues showcased icons like Fanny Brice and Al Jolson. If the shows themselves weren't terribly memorable, the songs and singers certainly were. Broadway as we know it today was being born, and the baby steps it took in 1921 were significant ones.
Those baby steps were on fine display at the first show of Broadway by the Year's 11th season on Monday at Town Hall. Written and hosted (as ever) by Scott Siegel, directed and choreographed by Jeffry Denman, and with musical direction by Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band, the evening was a fascinating at how far we have come in less than a century.
Fanny Brice premiered several of her iconic songs in 1921, and Liz Lark Brown got to try her hand at them in the concert. (It would seem that the Siegels are casting their vote as to who should play Fanny in the upcoming Funny Girl revival.) Her "Second Hand Rose" was cute, though performed with a heavy Eastern-European accent (as Brice herself may well have sung it), but the real demonstration of her prowess came at the evening's finale. Brown's "My Man" started off sung as Brice would have sung it, simple and unaffected. After the first verse, she switched to French in honor of Mistinguet, who premiered the song as "Mon Homme" in 1916. To wrap up the number, Brown belted the final chorus in a direct homage to Streisand, demonstrating not only the song's staying power but how versatile it has been over the decades.
Since Al Jolson was the other big star from 1921, it was very appropriate that Stephen Mo Hanan got to pay homage to the man he has played in Jolson & Co. Hanan performed "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Easy Pickins" and "April Showers" with a healthy touch of Jolson, but more than made the numbers his own.
Denman gave himself two lovely little moments in the show: Accompanying himself on the ukulele for "In Honeysuckle Time," and dancing with Jennifer Rias on "Oh, Me! Oh, My!" Sadly, he didn't have any duets with his Yank! co-star Bobby Steggert, but Steggert danced a very cute "Just Like You" with Erin Denman instead.
Likewise, Erin Davie and Kevin Earley didn't get an awful lot to do, though Earley nailed the act one finale "The Very Next Girl I See" and Davie showed off a lovely and clear soprano voice with one of the evening's unplugged numbers, "Say It With Music."
KendRick Jones, fresh from The Scottsboro Boys, made his long-awaited return to Broadway by the Year, and it was truly wonderful to have him back. (It would be better, of course, to have him above the title in a long-running Broadway musical, but until someone revives Jelly's Last Jam, we'll take what we can get.) He got two aerodynamic dance solos-"Everybody Step" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," backed up by a chorus of gamines called the "Siegfeld" girls. (Geddit? Geddit?)